I've spent a lot of time thinking about No Man's Sky since wrapping up my review a couple weeks ago. While hardly a great game, its very particular blend of elements has captured my imagination. I want more, but with perhaps a bit more focus than what it currently offers. And I don't mean Starbound, strong as that game might be. I want to actually be in the cockpit.
As I wrote shortly after its release, what really grabbed me about No Man's Sky was its seamlessness. The enthralling feeling of rising from the ground, launching into space, and floating over a planet remains one of my lasting memories of No Man's Sky. It was perfect.
It worked especially well because it was so streamlined and easy to accomplish. A lot of critics knock No Man's Sky for being what they derisively refer to as an arcade game: a space sim that strips away all complexity and virtually flies itself. These complaints are valid in that No Man's Sky goes a little too far in that department - you can't even crash - but I'm actually mostly onboard with Hello Games's decision to go casual with the flight mechanics. If I'm being totally honest, most space flight sims are actually too complex these days. The ones I find are typically along the lines of Elite Dangerous: slow, ponderous, and extremely complex.
Though floatier and not nearly as complicated as its peers, No Man's Sky has the lightness and fluidity of Freespace 2 - in my opinion still the best pound for pound space combat sim ever made . In particular, the dogfighting in No Man's Sky is a real pleasure; I just wish that there was more of it. Fighting the same pirates again and again doesn't really do it for me.
In addition to the flight mechanics, I'm also a fan of No Man's Sky's overall look. It's stylized and colorful, with boxy starfighters that call to mind LucasArts' old gouraud shading engine from X-wing and TIE Fighter. It has some serious issues with pop-in, but it still manages to stand out; and bland as its landscapes can be, its planets are still a fair sight better than most games of this type, which are often just featureless rocks. It's aided by its lovely and soothing soundtrack, which complements No Man's Sky's sense of loneliness nicely. By comparison, most space sims are antiseptic in the extreme, focusing on mechanics to the exclusion of atmosphere.
In all of this, it's easy to discern the beginnings of a great game; but as plenty of fans and critics have pointed out, it feels rushed and unfinished. It lacks even a little bit of depth; its inventory is a pain, and it's too bland and repetitive. In the end, No Man's Sky sheer ambition - 18 quintillion planets! - is its undoing.
But that needn't be the end of the story.
My own dream
This is where I do the annoying fan thing and imagine my own game, so please bear with me.
Let's start with No Man's Sky's basic gameplay, its sense of seamlessness, its atmosphere, and its survival mechanics. There needs to be more customization, and a greater sense of danger would help a lot too; but as I detailed above, I'm mostly okay with many of the basic ideas in No Man's Sky. I like its accessibility and its sense of atmosphere, and I like how fast it moves. All of that is fine.
The first big change I would make would be to scale down from 18 quintillion planets to say... 12 - possibly 24 if you want to have multiple star systems. They could still be procedurally generated to make each game new and different; but with far fewer planets to create, the engine could theoretically be more robust. Alternatively, a set of 15 or 16 hand-crafted planets and moons to visit and explore would be miles better than the randomly-generated blobs of No Man's Sky.
With the focus brought down to a single star system (or two), No Man's Sky could work much better as a traditional survival game. You could build up first a camp then a full-on base on your starting planet, which would then serve as a launching point for exploring the rest of the system. Different planets would have unique materials and animals to find, which would aid in the growth of your base and the development of your ship. You could even have a system in which colonists arrive on your budding settlement and setup shop.
Now, you may recall that I said that settlement building wouldn't be a great fit for No Man's Sky as presently constructed, and I still believe that. There's just not enough reason to stick around a given planet. But with a much more contained sandbox to explore, a loop could develop in which you venture further and further from your home base to gather rare raw materials for your settlement. You could also populate it with a much greater array of aliens, traders, and NPC fleets, as well as dangerous enemies with interesting loot. In that context, I think No Man's Sky seamless space travel and nascent survival mechanics would fit in rather well.
This is what I mean by using No Man's Sky's foundation as a platform to build out and create something new and interesting. It doesn't have to be exactly what I envision - I think No Man's Sky's current exploration structure could actually work rather well with minor additions like a photo album and planetary mementos - but it constitutes fertile territory for developers to build upon.
In the meantime, a quick survey of the gaming landscape reveals that a lot of developers are making games with the same sort of seamless travel as No Man's Sky, but otherwise tend to vary wildly. Evochron Legacy, for instance, is an ambitious space exploration game hampered by a cumbersome UI and dated graphics. Infinity: Battlescape, which was successfully crowdfunded last year, has promise as a multiplayer space combat sim with massive scale, but it's still a year out. Elite Dangerous, as I mentioned, is an interesting space trading sim with a lot of ships to acquire; but alas, unless you're really dedicated to being a space trucker, its incredibly slow pace eventually overwhelms it. In the end, none of these games are as stylish or accessible as No Man's Sky or even TIE Fighter.
No Man's Sky's lasting lesson is there there's a real audience for a game like this, hype or no hype. People are starved for stylish and accessible space flight games, and they'll show up if a game is good enough. What's more, an honest-to-god survival game that mixes space combat with resource gathering, exploration, and settlement building has real merit. If No Man's Sky can't realize that potential, hopefully someone else will.
Ah hell, maybe I really should just stick with Starbound.